By David Flin
We’ve all known the sheer pleasure that you get when you’re curled up with a good book, one that you are engrossed in to the exclusion of all else, and that warm feeling of contented pleasure when you finally finish the last page.
Like many things in life, writing, and in particular pacing a story, is all a matter of timing. There is a perfect rhythm to it. The precise rhythm will vary according to each story, and according to different audiences. You need to pace the telling of the story so that both the writer and the reader feel a sense of satisfaction when the climax is reached, and the tale is complete.
Many inexperienced authors are impatient, too eager to get to the climax as quickly as possible. The end result is frequently ultimately unsatisfying, leaving the reader feeling disappointed that so pleasure has been missed out in the frantic haste.
Stories have three parts to them; a beginning, a middle, and an end. All of them are necessary, each naturally leading to the next stage as the writer leads the reader on a voyage of mutual discovery. Writing a story is as much an exercise in discovery for the writer as well as the reader, and the greater the pleasure the reader gets from the story, the greater the satisfaction for the writer.
The beginning is an introduction. It’s where you’re trying to get the reader to care about the book; about the characters and the setting. Many writers rush this part of the process, but that’s a mistake. Take the time to tantalise and tease the reader, to draw them slowly in to the world you’ve created, to entice them with developing possibilities. The action of the middle and end of the story is much more enthralling and exciting and gripping if the reader has built up a rapport with the characters and cares what happens to them.
Obviously, the reader has to feel that the characters are real, they have to feel a connection with the characters, both strengths and flaws.
The beginning is where the reader is drawn into caring, desiring a deeper involvement with the story. You can’t get the reader to care about the story if they don’t care about the characters. They won’t care about the characters if they can’t empathise with them. After all, action without a connection is just a meaningless endeavour, as quickly forgotten as it took to reach an unsatisfying climax.
The beginning is a process of discovery, where the reader uncovers the depths of the characters, and begins to increasingly relate to them.
Discovery involves two things that need balancing. Things need to be discovered. You have to make sure that you steadily reveal more about the character and the situation, removing a layer at a time, tantalising the reader into wanting to see more. The pace will depend upon the reader, but there is generally less of a rush than you might think at this stage. You need to balance revealing something, with leaving something hidden, for the reader to discover later on during the voyage of exploration.
The beginning is the set-up. You’re putting the pieces into place for the middle, when the action starts to heat up. The beginning prepares the way for the middle.
The middle of the story is where things begin to develop, where the issues that you have hinted at previously come to the fore. Essentially, the introductions have been made, and we’ve moved into more serious action.
Again, it’s generally a mistake, and one often made by inexperienced writers, to hurry through to get to the climax as quickly as possible. Don’t rush. The journey will have its own rhythm, and once you can master the rhythm, the journey towards the climax will both be absorbing and exciting in its own right, and it will enhance the quality of the climax.
Start with a gentle touch, just a small hint of what is to come. Each stage takes you a little further along the voyage of discovery. This slow development helps build up the anticipation for future steps, giving the reader tantalising glimpses of the emotional sensations you have in mind. Not too slowly. Too slowly, and you’ll get bogged down, and the excitement may fade away, and the climax fail because the story has become flaccid and unmoving. Too quickly, and you’ll reach the climax prematurely, leaving the reader unsatisfied and feeling as though they have missed out on a lot.
Each step in the action takes you further along the journey. Each step needs to build up an upward curve of tension and excitement. The further you progress through the middle passage, the more you should be looking to slowly build towards the climax.
Make sure that as you develop with these increasingly powerful developments, you maintain a sense of rhythm. A development leads to a response, which leads to a greater development, which leads to a greater response, and so on. If you time it right, if you have the necessary rhythm, you’re developing a story with increasing force, in which move and counter-move flow together, becoming a single force moving with great, almost unstoppable momentum towards the climax.
The middle of the story moves into the ending when the climax approaches. This is where you start to draw close to the finishing post. Firstly, make sure that the culmination is dramatic, that it engages the reader on every level. The objective is to overwhelm the senses, creating a page-turning freneticism in the reader, whereby they can’t let go of the book, compelled to turn each page, oblivious to the outside world.
Once you have done this, your job as a writer is nearly, but not quite, done. In the pages after this culmination, you need to provide the reader with a satisfactory conclusion. Tie up nearly all the loose ends, showing the reader how things have played out. It’s the quiet conclusion, the relaxation after the previous endeavours, the quiet contentment after the thrusting action of the earlier climax.
Tie up most of the loose ends, but not all of them. If the journey has been a satisfying one for both author and reader, you’ll want to leave the opportunity for a sequel.